What’s in a personal value and what are mine?

In his address to Stanford Graduates in 2005, Steve Jobs said; “And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition”.

When we have an intuitive response to something it is often our personal values that are being touched upon. If it’s a negative feeling then we are somehow anticipating that our personal values are going to be compromised. If it’s a positive feeling, then whatever is happening is probably resonating with those values.

People who live in a community that reflects the same values as their own, feel safer, happier, and more confident. In our early history, we chose to live in communities because they offered safety. Faced with the choice of two communities, we would probably go of one that appeared to offer greater safety. We couldn’t actually tell whether it WAS safer until it was tested, so we needed something to judge it by, and the shared values of the community were an important aspect of that assessment. Thus, the possession of values, and our ability to monitor our responses to them, could be argued to convey an evolutionary advantage.

It is sometimes said, that all human beings share six core personal values:

  • To know more (and more)
  • To control their environment (usually, today, by acquiring and spending money)
  • To express oneself
  • To feel loved
  • To have sufficient personal power to feel safe
  • To have a structure that orders their lives
  • Personally, I do not necessarily agree that these are so well established that they should be considered genetically fixed, as some authors suggest. I encounter too many people for whom one or other of these values is clearly not demonstrated through their behaviour and the choices that they make*, and yet who are apparently successfully engaged within their own community or society, that I do not feel it is right to say that they are ‘core human values’. They may be very common, but are not necessarily universal. As success does not seem to depend on them, I am not convinced that these core values offer an evolutionary advantage, so I doubt if they are (or, at least, yet need to be) genetically linked, but are more likely inculcated by societies among their young.

    *It is particularly dangerous for us to assume that, because someone doesn’t appear to value (interpreted by others as ‘respect’) the same things as us, that they are somehow less evolved, less intelligent, or a lesser contributor to our society.

    Societies do tend to have common rules that satisfy the last of these six values. These rules are sufficiently universal that one of them (‘The Golden Rule’) is said to be consistent throughout the world’s religions. It is ‘to do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Much of the conflict in the world has reflected a desire on the part of one community to impose its rules (and the values they claim underlie them) on another community. It is open to debate whether it is differences in the values themselves, or differences in their translation into rules, that fuels this conflict. Thus, most Christians would like to believe that most Muslims share common human values with them. It is the translation of those values into conflicting rules by an extremist faction that some Christians will use to justify why they are fighting those factions. Thus the conflict in Afghanistan, for example, might be a desire to replace an autocracy with a democracy, a society that perpetuates inequality with one that espouses equality, a drug economy with a petroleum one, and so on. Values – personal and societal – are behind each of these.

    People who work in organisations, and in roles, whose corporate values are aligned with their personal values, are likely to be more productive, happier, more creative, and more constructive than those who do not. For years, researchers have tried to identify what the ideal set of values for an organisation are. The work by Peters and Waterman in the 80s, for example, identified four common values that they said lay beneath the short-, medium-, and long-term financial performance of organisations. (They were: to exceed customer expectations, to give staff the power to determine their own behaviour, to experiment, and to nurture this culture.)

    The language varies, but the sentiment of creating a culture in which all humans are valued and encouraged to fulfil their potential, lies at the root of most efforts at organisation development (OD). This is why OD specialists invest effort in establishing the values most prevalent in an organisation and, where those are perceived as counter-productive, seek to adjust them.

    When assessing recruits for positions within an organisation, efforts are usually made to determine whether they will ‘fit in’ or not. This is about the cultural ‘fit’. Determining someone else’s values is not only nearly impossible, in the context of selection for employment it also opens up all kinds of ethical and moral dilemmas. So, instead, we usually try to determine in our own minds what their attitudes are to things.

    An ‘attitude’ is a mental response to people or situations that we use to determine our behaviour. It is based on our beliefs, but it is modified by learning. Thus, an individual who is told by a police officer to do something, may adopt an attitude of compliance, passivity, or defiance. If they place a high value on the importance of rules and structures, and have learnt to give power to those in authority, then they are going to adopt an attitude of compliance. If they do not place such a high value on structure and rules, and have learnt not to give away their power to others, then they are likely to adopt an attitude of passivity. If they don’t place value on structure, and have learnt to protect their own power, then they are likely to demonstrate an attitude of defiance.

    Of course, they may have high respect for rules and structures, but also have learned not to give away their power to others, this might be one reason why so many lawyers are either self-employed or work in partnerships, and the judicial system tends to have ritualised many of its practices.

    The same principles apply in the relationship between an employee and those in positions of authority in their organisation. For example, the extent to which you agree with the value of humans being encouraged to fulfil their own potential, will shape your attitudes when called to be a leader or a follower.

    Thus personal values, and their alignment with the places in which we work, our communities, and our playgrounds have a huge impact on what we choose to do, how we choose to do it, how well we do it, and what satisfactions we get from it.

    So how do we determine what our personal values are? There are probably three approaches that predominate; self-reflection, anecdotal, and prioritization.

    The first stems from self-reflection, albeit often helped by a less partial observer. Over time, the individual considers their emotional response to different situations and begins to look for common threads behind them. If the things that consistently anger them, excite them, amuse them, empassion them are considered over time, then there will begin to emerge a picture of the value(s) that are being touched upon. When I am helping someone to do this, I usually look for both ends of the spectrum and places in between before assuming that we have hit upon a value. Thus they need to be upset by the negatives, inspired by the positives. We will also look for their responses to parallel situations as a way of highlighting what is, and is not, the underlying value.

    For example, one client was particularly distressed by the news that a family, including three children, had died in a house fire. Nothing else about families seemed to provoke such a strong response. Then one day, she described a project that some of her colleagues were involved in where they blitzed a small school in Sussex, redecorating and re-equipping it over a week. On another occasion she commented on how proud she’d been of her godchild who had read out loud to her that weekend – unlike previous reading activities the child had spoken fluently. But it was her description of a trekking holiday that she’d been on that found the common thread – the value that she placed on an aspect of exploration was extraordinary. Seeing without judging. Observing without disturbing. The importance (almost sanctity) of the pristine world. It needn’t be nature, but it was about a space that was ‘in the flow’, in harmony.

    The second approach often cited is to focus the reflection by preparing a set number of illustrative stories or pictures. The number varies – 3, 5 or many – the stories or pictures generally involve some creativity. The individual is encouraged to allow their imagination to flow unimpeded. Then, either individually, with a counsellor/coach, or in a group, they describe the meaning behind their work and identify common threads.

    One variation on this theme is to prepare a personal coat of arms or pennant. Deciding on what to present and how to do so forces the same kind of analysis.

    A long time ago, I had a client who was an artist. Her work was well known and had a very distinctive quality to it. At first, she tended to focus on very destructive themes, but while on holiday one year she had just dabbled in painting some rural landscapes. Her life was generally pretty full-on – a real dynamo. Even the landscapes she painted emphasised the movement and growth of the space. Her frustrations were with people that stood still; that weren’t energised. The value she landed on was around progress.

    The third approach, prioritisation, involves the individual sitting with a list of possible values and deciding which are more important out of that list. By a process of elimination they identify a handful that are key to them. Usually, they will identify one or two more words that are ACTUALLY the ones they wish to use. Most such exercises end with the individual preparing a sentence that puts the words they have chosen in context. There is a worksheet that you can download with a typical list of values oriented words.

    Best wishes

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